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Within a White Supremacist System, Eric Garner's True Crime Was Being Fat

Within a White Supremacist System, Eric Garner’s True Crime Was Being Fat

Eric Garner was killed by the people who should have helped him, but those representing his murderer are blaming his fatness.

This essay contains discussions of racialized state violence, Black death, scientific racism, and fatphobia

It’s been almost five years since Eric Garner was murdered on July 17, 2014. A jury declined to prosecute Daniel Pantaleo for the murder that year, despite it being filmed. Now, Pantaleo is the subject of disciplinary hearings held to determine whether the officer, having been on administrative duty since Garner’s death, will ultimately lose his job. According to recent reports on the hearings, NYPD Union lawyer, Stuart London, argued that Garner’s murderer, Daniel Pantaleo, is clearly not at fault because Garner died “from being morbidly obese.”

“He was a ticking time bomb that resisted arrest,” London said. “If he was put in a bear hug, it would have been the same outcome.” This fatphobic narrative blaming Garner’s fatness for his death began in 2014, as soon as the autopsy report was completed. According to the medical examiner, the illegal chokehold Pantaleo used to restrain Garner and force him to the ground triggered a fatal asthma attack and ultimately led to cardiac arrest. Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) used the medical examiner’s words to propagate the idea that, had Garner not been fat, he would not have died while being choked. “You had a 350-pound person who was resisting arrest. The police were trying to bring him down as quickly as possible,” King reasoned. “If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from this.”

The medical examiner’s report explicitly states that the chokehold was the most significant factor in his death—“compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint” is what the report lists as cause of death, which was definitively ruled a homicide—and that asthma and hypertension were “contributing conditions.” Officer Justin D’Amico and another unnamed officer present at the incident both stated at the disciplinary hearings that they surmised that Garner was “playing possum” to avoid arrest, and so they provided no aid. Not only that, but the four EMTs who arrived on the scene initially did nothing to assist Garner, who was unconscious on the sidewalk when they got there.

“He’s most likely DOA,” Precinct Sgt. Dhanan Saminath texted Lt. Christopher Bannon after he arrived. “He has no pulse.” To this, Bannon replied, “Not a big deal.” D’Amico, the precinct’s “quality of life” coordinator, went on to process the arrest after Garner was already dead so that it would be included in the unit’s statistics. In his report, D’Amico inflated the charge to a felony, alleging that Garner had sold more than 10,000 untaxed cigarettes, even though he’d had fewer than 100 cigarettes on him when police encountered him that day, which would be classified as a misdemeanor.

Eric Garner was choked to death and neglected by the people who could have and should have helped him, but those representing his murderer have attempted to deflect the blame onto his fatness. Anti-Blackness and fatphobia both underscore the attitudes towards Garner and the language being used to justify his murder, and it’s important that we understand this fact. The realities of fatphobia extend far beyond what most Body Positivity rhetoric typically addresses, largely regarding it as a phenomenon working to convince us that fat people, especially women and other marginalized genders, are unattractive and pedestaling thinness as the only form of acceptable beauty in the process.

While this is indeed one part of how fatphobia manifests in our lives, it is not its main function. Nor does this notion encompass the depths to which fatphobic ideologies have seeped into the social consciousness, creating tangible harms for fat people, and the medical industry has been one of the chief propagators of the mythos that paints fat people as inherently unhealthy, slovenly, and feebleminded. As I wrote earlier this year when Wear Your Voice launched our Body Positivity In Color campaign, “Existing in bodies that do not meet a white supremacist standard—bodies that are not white, thin, fit, cis, straight, neurotypical, normative in its abilities and composition—has a tangible impact on people’s lives. Having non-normative bodies puts us at greater risk for socially-sanctioned abuse, state violence, hate crimes, and wrongful death.”

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The true function of fatphobia is to dehumanize and debase, first and foremost, and it is so because fatphobia is indelibly linked with anti-Blackness, of which the main function is to dehumanize and debase Black people. Ideas linking fatness with laziness, immorality, and lower mental acuities arose among white intellectuals directly alongside ideas that attributed these same characteristics to Blackness, in large part because fatness was linked to Blackness as an incarnation of white supremacy. In Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Sabrina Strings writes:

It is not surprising that the French and British were at the helm of eighteenth-century racial scientific discourse marking black people as ‘gluttonous.’ The growing codification of black people as greedy eaters developed against the backdrop of the accelerating slave trade among these two colonial powers of the eighteenth century. This, together with the exigencies of reasoned self-management in the context of the High Enlightenment, transformed the act of eating from personal to political. Indulging in food, once deemed by philosophers to be a lowbrow predilection of slow-witted persons, became evidence of actual low breeding. It bespoke an inborn, race-specific propensity for laziness and ease, an unbridled desire to meet the demands of the flesh at the expense of cultivating higher pursuits. Such behavior was deemed wholly uncharacteristic of the rational thinkers sitting atop the new racial hierarchy… Racial theories had linked fatness to blackness in the European imagination. And they had also linked thinness to whiteness.

Strings traces the history of how size and weight increasingly became symbolic representations of race and morality throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. This came following the writings of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, who held the title of Comte de Buffon, “the first celebrated scientist to assert that black Africans were plump, idle, and insipid.” In 1749, he published Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (Natural History: General and Particular), in which he argued that external characteristics such as skin color and the size and shape of the body were significant physical markers of distinction between races and indicators of a natural hierarchy that placed white people at the top. Here, and in the subsequent work of so-called “race scientists” noting the perceived inherent intellectual, physiological, and sexual differences between whites and people of color, is where our contemporary understanding of race distinction finds its footing.

Fearing the Black Body plainly lays out for its readers the fact that fatphobia is not an invention of the medical industry, though it is upheld by it in modern society. Instead, white scholars and “race scientists” during the period of European “High Enlightenment” constituted the belief systems which consider fatness to be evidence of racial, moral, and intellectual inferiority by aligning it definitively with Blackness and Africanness. The medical industry and health care institutions did not begin to regard fatness as an epidemic or health detriment until after these ideas linking fatness and Blackness were already firmly lodged in the social consciousness. This collective social understanding of fat as inherently unhealthy and indecent is what Stuart London is counting on when he argues in court that Eric Garner’s own body effectively killed him, rather than Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold. Fatphobia—often hand in hand with ableism—not only tells us that being fat is a moral transgression or sickness requiring blame, which must always be ascribed to fat people as laziness and greed, but also that fat people both deserve to die and should be held accountable for their deaths in ways thin people are not, regardless of the cause.

Strings explains, “According to Foucault, medicine intervenes as a key institution of the twentieth century, providing information on ‘how to live’ for health and longevity. Its dictates inform what Foucault calls the ‘biopolitics’ of health management, which include disciplinary practices that one must perform to be considered a healthy and thereby good citizen. However, the medical disciplinary regime has not been objectively applied to all persons. Instead, it is treated as an imperative for dominant groups, to the exclusion of poor, racially Othered groups. This approach helps to maintain social and in many instances specifically racialized and gendered hierarchies.”

It is both Eric Garner’s Blackness and fatness which allow society to devalue him to the point where his murder can be explained away as something he brought on himself. By blaming Garner’s fatness, Daniel Pantaleo’s defense draws upon centuries of socially and culturally understood mythology about the character of fat people. It’s a dog whistle—a loud one. What we are to understand from this emphasis on his weight is that Garner’s fatness was indicative of both his bankrupt character and his self-inflicted declining health. Someone his size is always already perceived as being close to death anyway. Murdering him was simply an expedition of the process his body was already in the throes of, a problem he created for himself by being fat. His death is his own fault, you see, because he was already killing himself simply by existing in a fat Black body.

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Sherronda (she/they) is an essayist, editor, and storyteller writing pop culture and media analysis through a Black feminist lens with historical and cultural context. They often find themselves transfixed by Black monstrosity, survival, and resistance in the horror genre and its many fantastical narratives, especially zombie lore. Read more of their work at Black Youth Project.

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